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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Proving why he's still an American classic, 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet turns in another brilliantly executed crime thriller. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead might be a downer but it's a real stunner.


Sometimes the simplest of crimes are the ones that go the most awry—a fact Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) find out the hard way. You see, they both have money problems: Andy is an overextended payroll exec who has been embezzling from his company, while Hank is a flighty ne'er-do-well who can't pay child support. When Andy hatches a larcenous scheme to rob a suburban mom-and-pop jewelry store that appears to be the quintessential easy target, Hank is in—until he finds out the store owners are Andy and Hank's actual mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney). "How can we do that?" Hank asks his cold-hearted brother, but Andy assures Hank it's a piece of cake and that no one will get hurt. Famous last words. Hank's fears are realized when the job goes horribly wrong and tragedy reaches unprecedented heights.


A top-notch cast like this only makes things better. Hoffman, in particular, gives yet another tour-de-force performance as the troubled Andy, a man wounded by his father's hard-headedness and lack of affection throughout the years. Hoffman alternates between calculating coldness and heart-wrenching desperation—all while keeping his outwardly appearance impeccable. Hawke's Hank, on the other hand, is just a mess through and through, a "puppy dog," as so described by Andy, who wears his heart on his sleeve and is his father's favorite. Although Hawke whines and grates his way through the performance, that is what the part requires, and he is quite effective at it. Finney as the brothers' old man is also conflicted, devastated by the tragedy yet determined to get to the bottom of it--and when he realizes it's his sons, Finney plays the moment perfectly. Also good is Marisa Tomei as Andy's stressed wife; she plays her like a caged bird looking for a way out. When things keep getting worse, you cringe in anticipation of each character's next move.


Sidney Lumet is certainly an expert in train-wreck crime dramas, having served up such classics as Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Prince of the City, as well as other stellar efforts such as 12 Angry Men, Network and The Verdict. He's also directed 17 different actors in their Oscar-winning performances--and still the man himself has yet to win the Academy Award for Best Director. Funny how it always works out that way. Over the last few years, Lumet has stumbled a bit (2006's Find Me Guilty didn't help matters), but you shouldn't underestimate his talent when he can really sink his teeth into something. Before the Devil is right up his alley, and he spins it with all the experience and professionalism he has at his fingertips. Its nonstop pace is enhanced by some clever editing in which time jumps back and forth over the span of a week. And of course, Lumet once again guides his actors into stellar performances. You get this dysfunctional family immediately, without a word spoken. The director is surely looking at his sixth Oscar nomination, and if he wins the Big One for what, in essence, is his body of work, at least we can say he won for something truly worthy.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.